What Is That?

Sound Art

When you think about art, you usually think of something you look at. But did you know that you can also listen to art?

Rebecca Horn, ‘Concert for Anarchy’ 1990
Rebecca Horn
Concert for Anarchy 1990
Tate
© DACS, 2017

From ordinary everyday noises like humming traffic to sounds made by instruments or human voices (whispering, talking, singing or even just blowing raspberries and making other nonsense noises….spphhhhbbbblllzzzppphhh), all sorts of different noises are used in sound art.

Jorge Macchi, ‘Incidental Music’ 1997
Jorge Macchi
Incidental Music 1997
Tate
© Jorge Macchi

Sound art is sometimes experienced live through a performance, or it can be listened to as a recording through speakers or headphones. And because sounds don’t need to have a special room to keep them safe in (like some other types of art), sound art can be put (and listened to) just about anywhere.

Susan Philipsz, LOWLANDS 2008 / 2010, Clyde Walkway, Glasgow

Susan Philipsz Lowlands 2008/2010, Clyde Walkway, Glasgow. © The artist, courtesy Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. Photo: Eoghan McTigue

Imagine you are walking along by a river and you hear a voice singing from under the bridge.

The song sounds mysterious like something from a different time. Susan Philipsz recorded herself singing three versions of an old Scottish ballad and played the recordings underneath three bridges in Glasgow. The song is about a sailor who drowns and comes back to say goodbye to a loved one. You can listen to it here.

This is what she says about sound: ‘Sound is invisible but very…emotive. It can define a space at the same time as it triggers a memory’.

Damaged horn salvaged from the Alte Münz bunker, Berlin, 1945

Bild 5, Klappenhorn (ruin), salvaged from the Alte Münz bunker, Berlin, 1945, Collection Musikinstrumenten-Museum Berlin. From Susan Philipsz: War Damaged Musical Instruments

Susan Philipsz usually uses recordings of her own singing voice to make her art, but for her piece War Damaged Instruments 2015 she used sounds made by instruments that have been damaged in wars. Although the instruments play a tune, some of them are so badly damaged no real notes come out – just noises. The sad broken sounds echo the sadness caused by war.

When did sound art begin?

The first sound artist was called Luigi Russolo. He was a futurist artist. Futurists were making art at the beginning of the twentieth century and loved fast and noisy new technology such as cars and machinery. Between 1913 and 1930, Russolo built noise machines inspired by the clatter of factory machinery and also the boom of guns from the First World War.

Hugo Ball reciting Karawane in a cubist costume at the Cabaret Voltaire, Zürich 1916

Hugo Ball reciting Karawane in a cubist costume at the Cabaret Voltaire, Zürich 1916
Gelatin silver on paper. Courtesy Fondation Arp

Dada artists also made sound art in the early twentieth century. But rather than celebrating the sounds of modern society and the First World War, their art was against it. They hated the horrors of the war so made up nonsense poems and music consisting of just sounds and noises expressing how they felt.

Joseph Beuys, ‘working title: BEUYS (FLUXUS) & CHRISTIANSEN (FLUXUS)’ 1969
Joseph Beuys
working title: BEUYS (FLUXUS) & CHRISTIANSEN (FLUXUS) 1969
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© DACS, 2017

Musician John Cage was inspired by these early sound artists. He composed a famous piece of music in 1952 called 4’33'' which is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of…COMPLETE SILENCE! He was friendly with artists in the Fluxus group, who also experimented with music and sound as art.

Jean Tinguely, ‘Débricollage’ 1970
Jean Tinguely
Débricollage 1970
Tate
© The estate of Jean Tinguely

Sound art can also be made by machines. Some artists make sculpture or objects that move, (this is called kinetic art), and the sound these sculptures make is part of experiencing the work. What sort of sound do you think the sculpture above makes? (CLICK, BANG, WHIZZ, GRRR…MIAOW)

Since the introduction of digital technology sound art has changed even more! Artists can now create visual images in response to sounds, and make sound art that the audience controls through pressure pads, sensors and voice activation.

And get this – it’s also now possible to make a sound that goes on for pretty much ever. On 1 January 2000 Longplayer a sound composition by Jem Finer started to play. It will continue to play for 1000 years!

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